HHS on Thursday announced it is investing more than $3 billion into the Antiviral Program for Pandemics, which will support the discovery, development, and manufacturing of antiviral drugs to treat early-stage Covid-19.
The program will be a collaboration between NIH, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
The funding, which comes from the American Rescue Plan, will include:
HHS will also allocate $1.2 billion to the development of collaborative drug discovery groups called Antiviral Drug Discovery Centers for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern. These groups will "harness the creativity of the biomedical research community and drive innovative antiviral drug discovery and development," according to HHS.
Initially, these groups will look at drugs targeting coronaviruses, but they could eventually look into other viruses that that could cause future pandemics, HHS said.
According to HHS, 19 drugs have been prioritized for clinical trials for outpatients and inpatients with Covid-19. As part of the program, NIH will prioritize and advance antiviral candidates to Phase 2 clinical trials.
If these trials are successful, some of the first antiviral pills for Covid-19 could be available by the end of the year, the New York Times reports.
Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID, said new antivirals would be "powerful tools for battling the pandemic and saving lives."
He added that he anticipates a future in which someone could pick up a Covid-19 antiviral at a pharmacy as soon as they receive a positive test.
"I wake up in the morning, I don't feel very well, my sense of smell and taste go away, I get a sore throat. I call up my doctor and I say, 'I have Covid and I need a prescription,'" Fauci said.
According to Fauci, it's likely that the first Covid-19 antiviral drugs will offer only a modest benefit against the disease.
"With all of these drugs that we've dealt with over the years, we've never hit a home run the first time at bat," he said. "A line drive off the left-field wall to start would be really good."
David Kessler, chief science officer for the Biden administration's Covid-19 response, said an effective Covid-19 antiviral drug "would be an important part of our therapeutic arsenal that would complement the great success of our vaccine efforts."
Kessler acknowledged the challenges in utilizing antivirals to lower hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19, as patients will need access to the drug as soon as they test positive. "Your testing programs are going to have to be linked to your treatment," he said.
Still, even if these drugs don't arrive for a few years, many experts say the investment will be worth it. "It could help with this pandemic and potentially provide a first line of defense for the next one," Mark Namchuk, director of therapeutic translation at Harvard Medical School, said (HHS release, 6/17; Zimmer, New York Times, 6/17; Fernandez, Axios, 6/17; Siddiqui, Wall Street Journal, 6/17).
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